The Elephant in the Room — Can NASA Get Astronauts on the Moon by 2024?

The Elephant in the Room — Can NASA Get Astronauts on the Moon by 2024?

The second day of a two-day NASA advisory committee meeting was much like the first.  After detailed briefings by NASA officials on its human spaceflight program, committee members had to ask themselves how best to advise NASA on the path forward. The consensus today was that the 2024 deadline for putting Americans back on the lunar surface is unrealistic. Instead of saying so directly, however, they chose to offer guidance on what must be done for NASA to have the best chance of success and ensure safety is paramount.

The Human Exploration and Operations Committee of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC/HEO) is comprised of human spaceflight veterans — including astronauts, program managers, flight and launch directors — who have celebrated the good times and mourned the bad.  Selected by the NASA Administrator, members of NAC and its committees meet several times a year to learn how NASA is executing its mission and offer findings and actionable recommendations.

That was one of dilemmas the NAC/HEO committee faced today — actionable recommendations.  After listening to two days of briefings on the Artemis program to return astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024, the last year of a Trump presidency if he wins reelection, committee members were not convinced it can be done. But that is what NASA has been directed to do, so presenting a finding or recommendation saying so is not actionable.

Committee member Tommy Holloway, a former manager of the space shuttle program and of the International Space Station program, said bluntly that meeting that deadline is a “pipe dream.”

While a lot of work has been done on the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion crew spacecraft, that is not the case for Human Landing Systems (HLS).  NASA just awarded contracts on April 30 for three companies to spend 10 months, between now and February 2021, refining their concepts.  Then NASA will choose which companies will proceed to design, build and test their systems to safely deliver astronauts to the lunar South Pole by the end of 2024, which at that point will be less than four years away.

Retired Maj. Gen. Stephen (Pat) Condon who once led the Air Force Arnold Engineering Development Center and is now a consultant, has been a member of the committee for several years.  He called the deadline the “elephant in the room” for the past two or three meetings.  It is “downward directed” and puts NASA in an awkward position.

It’s difficult for them to say we can’t do it … but I think there’s a pretty good consensus among the committee members that the likelihood of making the landing by 2024 is really, really remote. — Pat Condon

Having just been briefed on the commercial crew program, Condon pointed out that it took 8 years to get where they are today, with the first crew launch coming up in two weeks. Yet NASA is postulating it will take half that time to build HLS to land people on the Moon even though NASA has much more experience in putting astronauts into low Earth orbit than on the Moon.  Holloway said it “just don’t compute.”

No one disagreed, but the question was what would NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine do with a recommendation that said the deadline was impossible to meet when he has been directed by the White House to do just that?

“I would hate for us to stand up and say we can’t do it,” committee chair Wayne Hale argued.  Instead, focus on giving NASA advice on what needs to be done to have the best chance of success.  Hale is a former space shuttle flight director and program manager.

In the end, they agreed on a recommendation entitled “Improvements for Artemis execution.”  The final language, subject to wordsmithing, says:


  1. Uncrewed and other precursor flight missions should be performed to demonstrate the readiness of the systems before committing to high risk human missions.
  2. NASA management at all levels but especially in the HLS program should always emphasize safety over schedule.
  3. Mission abort and potential crew rescue operations should be included in HLS planning
  4. Timeliness of decision making can lead to improved safety by avoiding later schedule compression.”

The committee also adopted three findings, which are statements from the committee, but are not paired with recommendations.

One reflects concerns expressed during yesterday’s briefings that NASA is “spinning its wheels” by redoing trade studies and working on other unnecessary tasks instead of making decisions. The committee found that work on “trade studies, TRL assessments, and technology development projects do not seem to support rapidly moving forward” to meet the 2024 deadline and “key decisions needed for hardware developers to move forward are being delayed.”

Another finding endorses a proposal by Doug Loverro, head of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD), to reorganize how the Artemis program is managed within HEOMD.  He wants the entire effort under the leadership of a single program manager. Loverro told the committee yesterday he is working to get congressional agreement on that reorganization.

The third finding was drafted by committee member Mark McDaniel, who was appointed to NAC/HEO at the recommendation of Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Alabama) and previously served on the full NAC in the early 2000s. Bridenstine welcomed him to the committee in 2018 with a tweet that cited his “legal and space expertise.”

McDaniel made a passionate appeal for the committee to issue a statement in support of the Gateway, a small space station that NASA plans to put in lunar orbit. Once the centerpiece of the plan to return astronauts to the Moon, the Gateway is no longer deemed mandatory for the first lunar landing, although NASA still plans to build it for Phase 2 of the Artemis program that envisions “sustainable” lunar exploration. He sees it as emblematic of much more, however, part of the path to Mars.  He considers Mars, not the Moon, to be the truly inspirational, compelling human spaceflight goal.

The finding states that “we will not put an astronaut on Mars during this administration, but we can inspire the nation to take that journey.”  Returning to the Moon is “great,” but having already been there, the public and Congress “must be sold on that fact that a successful Mars mission will have a better chance of success if we first establish a permanent presence on the Moon.”  “Gateway is a way to accomplish this” by helping maintain a continuous presence on the Moon, serving as a test bed for improvements needed to get to Mars, and providing sustainability across presidential administrations.

Findings and recommendations from NAC committees go to the full NAC for consideration before forwarding to NASA managers, although those managers often are listening to the discussion so are fully aware of them in real time.

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